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Maricopa County voting issues continue to raise eyebrows of watchdogs

A civil rights watchdog group that tracks elections said it was greatly concerned that 62 Maricopa County polling stations failed to open on time Tuesday, and “very disappointed” that county officials refused to extend voting hours to let people cast a ballot.

Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes said the problems, which he blamed on understaffed technology contractors, were fixed and polling places were operational by 11:30 a.m.

But by that time voters across the county had already reported to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law hotline that they were unable to cast ballots.

“We know that many people, especially those that are working long shifts may only have an hour or two in the morning to cast a ballot,” said Laura Grace, the committee’s election protection manager. “Or they may not have transportation options to travel from their home precinct to a bonus voting center, and we did have voters that called the hotline and said that wasn’t an option for them.”

Grace said her group was also “very disappointed that the County Board of Supervisors refused to extend voting hours or look for remedies for voters that were impacted.”

But Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Steve Chucri said he was “disappointed” in Fontes, who had been given “no shortage of resources to run a successful election” after the county drew national attention in 2016 for polling place cuts that left people standing in line for hours to vote.

Chucri said he first learned of Tuesday’s problems in the afternoon when he was shown a tweet from Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan said the county should “seriously consider” asking for court approval to extend voting hours. Chucri said Fontes called his office “almost simultaneously” with the same request.

“The secretary of state and the county recorder bringing this to our desk more than halfway through a voting day, expecting us, as a board, to intervene, was not leadership in my opinion. And it was not professional, especially the way it was tweeted out,” Chucri said.

Fontes is a Democrat elected in 2016, after a flawed presidential preference election earlier that year was helmed by GOP Recorder Helen Purcell. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors is controlled by Republicans, including Chucri. Reagan was ousted in this week's GOP primary election.

Fontes blamed the failure on insufficiently staffed county contractors hired to prepare the voting equipment. He said he only found out about the issue Monday, asking election workers to step in and complete the set-up.

“Flat out, we could have done a lot better this morning,” Fontes said in a Facebook video update minutes before Tuesday’s 7 p.m. poll closures. “Look, this is a rough business and we work really hard to make things happen.”

But Chucri said the request to extend voting hours put supervisors in a tough spot.

“When we didn’t know what effect extending it could really have, when no one could account or find in recent history something of that magnitude being done. … In this very sensitive and difficult situation, I chose not to extend the voting hours,” Chucri said.

Problems for voters, however, were not limited to the late openings, Grace said.

“In some cases, they (voters) were instructed to go to a neighboring station that was open and cast a provisional ballot in that location,” she said. “It’s unclear to us if that should have been guidance that was given, or if that was following policy or not, so we’re concerned that some voters may have been casting ballots that may be challenged or have problems.”

Voting-by-mail is increasingly taking the place of in-person voting in Maricopa County, and most races were settled by substantial margins Tuesday. But Grace said her group remains deeply unsatisfied with the handling of elections in the county, and she urges anyone who encounters issues at the polls in November to call its election protection hotline immediately at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683).

Grace said her office did not get reports of significant problems in any other county in the state Tuesday. And Chucri vowed the supervisors will get involved to make sure Maricopa County does a better job in the future.

“We rise together and we fall together as Maricopa County, and yesterday Maricopa County could have done better,” Chucri said. “We’re going to get auditors who do a great job and we’re going to find out exactly what went wrong to protect against it happening again in the fall. And we are going to effectively insert ourselves in the management process thereof.”

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